Friday, April 27, 2007

Kenneth Clark's Study in Ideal Form

The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, by Kenneth Clark (aka Lord Clark of Civilization) Doubleday Anchor Books, Garden City, New York, 1959

While I was growing up, in Bloomington, Indiana, we frequently visited friends who had this book in one of their bookshelves. As a lad, I would take it down, thumb through it, and invariably put it back. I was always so disappointed. I did try reading it, but mostly tried to look at the pictures. Arrgh! I adore nudes, but I am still not fond of the pictures in this book, that is, of the reproductions; maybe they've improved in the newer edition, though I doubt it.

However, I find the text exemplary. It is, I admit, in the somewhat old-fashioned fuddy-duddy style of art history, where unabashed hero-worship and connoisseurship combine with a certain high style that off-puts our more proletarian and modernist tendencies. However, Clark has enormous knowledge combined with both a good eye and a fine writing style, which for me is in the category of What More Could I Ask For?

Lord Clark spends very little time sneering in this book - which is something I profoundly wish another grand master, Harold Bloom, would simply leave off.

As I was saying... as a lad I looked for pictures of naked women where I could find them. It made sense that a book called The Nude would have them, and though it did, they failed to satisfy. Mind you, I had enjoyed times spent at museums with all the naked women, er, nudes, I could possibly imagine. The problem here was the black & white reproductions were so small and bleak. I enjoyed the nudes in museums because I found them erotic. I thought, of course, that I was not supposed to, and that if I ever got around to reading Clark's book I would discover how.

Had I read it earlier, I might have been consoled by the following observation:
No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling… The desire to grasp and be united with another human is so fundamental a part of our nature that our judgement of what is known as ‘pure form’ is inevitably influenced by it, and one of the difficulties of the nude as a subject for art is that these instincts cannot be hidden.
Lord Clark's first chapter, "The Naked and the Nude", is justly famous. Here, he makes a noteworthy distinction.
To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word 'nude,' on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body re-formed.

This chapter has been widely criticized, some of which has been summarized by Leslie Bostrom, who writes,
Clark's attempt to clothe the nakedness of bodies with nudity is an attempt to return to the innocence of the Garden and/or to imaginary Greek paganism. This explains why Clark leaves most of Northern European nudity out of his "good" category; the gazes of grim Protestant painters such as Lucas Cranach, Jan van Eyck, and so on never allow Adam and Eve to return to their Greek, preapple innocent sexiness.
I'm not so sure about that. It seems to me that if your problem with somebody's writing is all that harrumphing, it does little good to go harrumphing yourself.

In any case, quite a bit more generous, and much more interesting, is the assessment of Julie Copeland and Frances Borzello in a conversation from Sunday Morning. They quote extensively from the book, and fill in details of the author's biography.

Frances Borzello: ... One of the reviews that I read—I was really interested to find out some of the reviews—was in The New Statesman in 1956 by Benedict Nicholson, who’s a very well respected writer, and he just said, ‘Kenneth Clark is a Mediterraneanist.’ You know, that’s his world, and it’s so interesting to read his chapter called ‘The Alternative Tradition’, and that has some wonderful, wonderful writing in it. Can I tell you something that he writes about the medieval—just to continue that—‘The body changed its status. It ceased to be the mirror of divine perfection and became an object of humiliation and shame.’ And the way he introduces that chapter, I remembered it…when I read it I thought, oh, that’s where I got this from. ‘Roots and bulbs pulled up into the light give us for a moment a feeling of shame.’ And that is what he says the Gothic nude bodies, you know, in last judgements are like, roots and bulbs.

Julie Copeland: It’s a great image.

Frances Borzello: I just think that’s so brilliant. He just is a lovely writer.

Julie Copeland: I suppose what you’re saying is that he certainly made us see particular works in a particular way, and that many of his ideas weren’t new, in fact they were probably the end of a fine tradition. The idea, for example, that the north did have this…what he calls the ‘alternative convention’, you know, the Gothic northern naked body, which he poses opposite that archaic classical ideal of beauty, and that he quotes artists like Durer, the German artist. He says, ‘Durer approached the nude with a mixture of curiosity and horror.’

Frances Borzello: He does. I’m not quite sure how he knows all this, but anyway it’s true. But then you see, Kenneth Clark is endearing because when he gets to Cranach’s nudes, those wonderful ladies who are just sexy and slender and Gothic with their little apple high breasts…

Julie Copeland: And very evil, cat-like faces.

Frances Borzello: Absolutely. And then they’re dressed up. I mean, they’ve got big hats on. There’s one in the national gallery here, a lady in a great big hat and a necklace, and, God, she’s sexy. And he’s very sensitive to that, so she may be alternative and Gothic and all of those things, but he can see that she is really lovely. And I do find that very endearing about him. He’s very human in the way he sees painting...

A bit gushy, maybe, but correct. Here is how Clark opens his chapter on The Alternative Convention:

Roots and bulbs, pulled up into the light, give us for a moment a feeling of shame. They are pale, defenseless, , unself-supporting. They have the formless character of life that has been both protected and oppressed. In the darkness their slow, biological gropings have been the contrary of the quick, resolute movements of free creatures, bird, fish, or dander, flashing through a transparent medium, and have made them baggy, scraggy, and indiscriminate. Looking at a group of naked figures in a Gothic painting or miniature we experience the same sensation. The bulblike women and rootlike men seem to have been dragged out of the protective darkness in which the human body had lain muffled for a thousand years.

Yes, this is good writing. Worth reading.